Natalie Dormer has an interesting face. I don't necessarily mean to say that she's enormously attractive, though of course she is, in an unconventional way. That "unconventional" makes the difference - the shape of her head is flatter than you'd expect from a Hollywood-type star, and that pushes her features together in an unusual way, and the net result is that she grips the camera even when she's not doing anything particular with her expressions. She has the kind of face that makes one yearn for silent movies to come back, because the basic matter of looking at her is pure cinema, and only encumbered by having to factor in dialogue.

Then again, when the dialogue is that of The Forest, Dormer's leading debut in the movies and the first American wide release of 2016, it's all too easy to wish for any kind of scenario that would lead to us not having to hear it. It's a perplexingly racist serving of hot, steaming Orientalism, in which the very real Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji, the world's second-most frequented destination for suicides after the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, serves as a generic haunted setting for a hokey chain of totally predictable ghost-related scares, and this isn't even the worst thing about it, though it's easily the most offensive (Aokigahara is played by a forest in Serbia, thank Christ). Dormer plays one-half of identical twin sisters, Sara - which is to say, of course she plays both twins, the other being Jess, but the whole point is that Jess went missing on a trip to Japan, last seen entering Aokigahara, and now Sara has traveled to The Exotic East (Where They Eat Still-Living Bugs, Ew) to find her sister and confront her own metaphorical ghosts which the menacing, evil forest represents as literal ghosts, in case you only started watching horror movies three or four days ago and haven't come across that old chestnut yet.

The solitary thing the film does that is interesting, other than train Mattias Troelstrup's camera on Dormer's face in many close-ups, is cut the first act into tiny slivers and thread them through the first two minutes or so of the second act, so the film functions as a series of discordant flashbacks through most of its "getting to know you" phase. This pays off, as well as it might, in establishing Sara as a person morbidly incapable of living fully in the present when she can keep niggling over things from the past, and if The Forest ever manages to do something worthwhile as a character study - it does try, bless its heart, that's a lot for a PG-13 January horror picture - it comes from building Sara's particular brand of depression into its structure.

But Dormer, interesting face or not, isn't a very emotionally expressive actress, and The Forest does her no favors by saddling her with Taylor Kinney as a co-star, an actor who radiates insincerity, but at least has the rakish meatiness of a charming cad. Neither of them, meanwhile, benefit from the exposition-heavy script by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai, which requires both of them to state very simplistic things in too much detail, while making choices whose one and only reason for being is to make absolutely sure that the movie doesn't stop after 30 uneventful minutes. Composter Bear McCreary tries to make it a horror film, and tries very hard to remind us that the film takes place in a Disney World version of Japan; director Jason Zada also tries to make it a horror film, and even succeeds at staging a couple of jump scares, wrings some level of tension out of delaying the reveal that a creepy Japanese schoolgirl is a ghost well after we've figured it out but before Sara has, and isn't afraid to let the frame go murky when the sun starts to go down. But in its best moments, this is still a dimestore J-horror knock-off, and its worst moments are so hideously routine and made more unnatural than necessary by the script and actors that the best moment seem like you might have imagined them as a means of staving off boredom.